Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If I have a reservation about Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” (discussed elsewhere on this blog) it’s that he, or his cinematographer, makes the desert look a little too picturesque.  Of course, I’m not going to deny that the desert is visually beautiful, that’s what first attracted me to it, and of course I love a broad stretch of unspoiled, pristine desert as much as the next man, and I’m very glad indeed that Death Valley or Joshua Tree survive as preserved patches of territory that are as close to “virgin” as we’re ever likely to see, and of course they are meticulously “managed.”.  But the fact is, I also love a spoiled, less than pristine stretch of desert.

And when it comes to on-screen depictions of the desert I’m drawn to Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana,” his early “documentary” that traces an inscrutable journey down through the Sahara desert.  Certainly the film does have some gorgeous desert imagery, including this shot of a little boy walking his fennec fox on a leash across the sand dunes.

But “Fata Morgana” also shows the desolate edges, the areas scarred by human activity, not least military and industrial.  Herzog is smart enough not to simply revel in the beauty of ugliness, and I think he’s not indulging in the pleasure of ruins either, but he does show us that the wrecked and the damaged may be every bit as compelling as the pristine.

My own attitudes have changed over time.  When I first started visiting deserts I wanted them clean and empty and devoid of human presence (well, any human presence except mine, naturally).  And of course I still like those grand vistas of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and I regularly go and walk in them, but on the way there I know I’ll pass through some scrubby, frayed bits of desert, the outskirts of towns like Barstow, Boron or Baker, and I’ll be drawn to deserted motels, abandoned houses, evidence of human presence as well as absence.

This has been on my mind a lot recently.  I’ve been reading a book titled Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, a couple of British poets who go wandering around what the subtitle calls “England’s true wilderness,” the non-spaces that fail to appear either on topographical or mental maps: sewage works, parking lots, airports, scrap yards, and so on.

They write, “Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists … complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.”

This is great stuff and certainly it doesn’t apply only to England.  And I don’t the guys are just being perverse, like going to the Sistine chapel and admiring the floor.  One of the most basic functions of writing is to point out things that otherwise might have been missed, and these guys do it royally.  

The book also it made me realize that I have spent large chunks of my life walking in and admiring edgelands.  For instance I love great Victorian railway architecture, the stations, the bridges, the engine sheds, but I’m actually more at home wandering along disused railway lines admiring those strange little shacks and huts that grow up alongside them.

And one of the things I’ve realized is that not all edgelands are at the edge.  Sometimes there can be junk spaces right in the middle of things.  My favorite non-space in that sense is shown in the picture above, an alley right in the heart of Hollywood, that runs off Las Palmas Avenue, just below Hollywood Boulevard.  It may have a name but I can’t find it on any of the maps I’ve got.  It goes down the side of Miceli’s Italian restaurant, but as the sign indicates, it belongs to somebody else “Supply Sergeant” which is an army surplus store nearby.  And of course the absolute joy of it is the precision with which somebody has measured, recorded, and sign-painted the dimensions of this otherwise thoroughly nondescript space.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


While I was in New York I went to the High Line, a section of elevated railway that’s now been converted or I dare say “repurposed,” into a pedestrian precinct so that New Yorkers can stroll high above ground level and look down on the poor suckers beneath them.  New Yorkers seem justifiably proud of it, and a lot of people do in fact walk there, but it’s a very specific kind of walking, actually I think a form of promenading.  People walking up and down, savoring the pleasure of walking, looking around them, checking each other out.  Very old school.

Of course, very few of the people walking the High Line are actually going anywhere, using it as a way of getting from A to B.  That’s not surprising.   Citizens who actually need to get from the far western end of, say, 30th Street down to Gansevoort Street and the meat packing district are few and far between.  So the place functions a kind of pedestrian theme park, a piece of reclaimed industrial territory, now decked out with walkways and exuberant landscaping, while keeping some of the old rails still visible.

One great thing, obviously, is that you’re above the traffic, and therefore not confronted by manic drivers or deranged cyclists.  There’s even a section where people sit in a kind of amphitheater and gaze down at the traffic below; a surprisingly pleasurable activity. 

But even so, walking on the High Line isn’t entirely different from walking the sidewalks of New York.  The paths are extremely narrow in places and you can find yourself stuck behind a group of inconsiderate, slow-moving walkers just as you can on the street.

There are also some wooden loungers where people who are less committed to walking can sprawl back and display themselves to passing pedestrians.  Did somebody suggest there might be one or two exhibitionists in New York?  Well why not?  People watching is always fun, and watching people who have actually set themselves up to be watched is a particular form of that fun.

The High Line itself is suitably sylvan and park-like, but inevitably you look past the greenery and the pedestrian oasis, away towards the cityscape of the surrounding area.  There are apartment blocks, new slithers of zesty modern architecture, old industrial buildings and the Hudson River is visible from certain places.

There are inhabitants who were formerly living thoroughly quiet private lives who now find gaggles of people walking past their window and staring in.  No doubt some are royally pissed off about it.  On the other hand, some of the newer developments seem to be designed specifically with passing pedestrians in mind.  In certain places you can look right into some very expensive apartments and see just how much space the inhabitants have got, indeed how much space they’ve wasted – the true sign of Manhattan opulence.

On the two days I went to the High Line, a building was being demolished very close to the southern end of the walkway.  A guy in a demolition machine, one with caterpillar tracks and a single arm with what looked like a giant hole punch on the end, though I believe it’s actually known as a hydraulic hammer, was doing the job all by himself. 

Smashing walls and roof was easy enough but then he encountered metal girders which were much harder to break down, though he always got there in the end.  The whole process delivered quite an ear-bashing to the walkers on the High Line, and clouds of demolition dust rose up and billowed in our direction.  The noise and the dirt were the kind of thing that you might think would threatened to spoil a walk.  But it didn’t.  The walkers I saw absolutely LOVED it.  We all paused in our walking, moved to the side of the High Line, pressed against the railing and stared down in absolute fascination, to see how one man could destroy a whole building. 

It didn’t spoil the walk, it absolutely MADE the walk.  If I were designing a pedestrian theme park I’d make sure there was some industrial-scale destruction going on there; so much more fun than looking at the birds and the plants and the show offs on the wooden sun loungers.


 On Saturday October 22nd at 6 pm I’m leading a walk in Sheffield as part of the Off The Shelf Literary Festival. In order to make life difficult for myself, and I hope to make the walk more interesting, I’ve decided to turn it into a “project” that invokes mapping, memory and “emotion recollected in tranquility” – all the great Romantic pedestrian virtues.

The project is an apparently simple one.  I go for a walk near my current home in Los Angeles.  Then some weeks later, accompanied by festival-goers, I go for a walk in Sheffield, the city where I was born and brought up, and where, in my time, I’ve done a great deal of walking, but which is now partly (and increasingly) unfamiliar to me.

The idea is that the two routes should, in one sense, be as similar to each other as possible: the same length, taking the same amount of time, walking the same “shape” on the map of each city. 

I decided that the two walks should be as “circular” as possible, i.e. beginning and ending in the same place, and attempting to carve a circle through the geography of each place.  You can make up your own mind about the deeper symbolism of this.

So I began with a map of Los Angeles, specifically of Hollywood, and I traced a circle on the map, using the very latest hi tech cartographical methods – I drew round the rim of an inverted martini glass.

Of course you can’t literally walk in a circle on the streets of Los Angeles because much of the city is built on a grid, but I designed a route that was as close to circular as possible.  In fact, as you see below, it wasn’t really very close, or very circular at all, but that’s the nature of the enterprise: the best laid walking plans are always confounded by the situation on the ground.  The map (as they say) is not the territory.  This map, like all the others, is clickable and will then enlarge.

The Hollywood walk is now done, things have been seen, notes have been made, photographs have been taken, some of which are visible below.

The walk was arbitrary to a degree and it isn’t exactly a tourist route, but I thought it best to include one or two places that people are likely to have heard of even if they’re unfamiliar with LA: Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street, and it was a route that from time to time gave views of the Hollywood Sign.  

Having done the Hollywood walk, I traced the shape of that route on a sheet of transparent plastic.

I then placed that sheet over the map of Sheffield, and that will be the route I’ll try to walk there on Saturday the 22nd.

Of course the geography of Sheffield, the layout of the streets, doesn’t conform to the geography of Los Angeles, so the shape of the walk will have to be modified again according to local topography.  The circle becomes ever less circular.  So here’s the route I’m actually proposing for the Sheffield Walk.

The idea, always subject to change and decay, is that as I walk the route in Sheffield I’ll consult the map, the notes, the photographs of my Hollywood walk.  I’ll be able to say things like, “If you were at this point on the route in Hollywood you’d be looking at the Capitol Records building or a marijuana dispensary, or whatever.  And we’ll compare and contrast this experience with conditions on the ground in Sheffield.

I realize that in many ways this is walking made needlessly complicated, perhaps even made absurd, but in the end, on the day, in Sheffield, we’ll simply be going for a walk, seeing what happens, seeing what there is to see.

Below is another map of the Hollywood walk, this time with numbers that correspond to the specific points where I took photographs. 

OK, I admit it, not all the photographs were taken on the very day of the walk, and one of them was “borrowed” from an online source because I couldn’t get a good shot.

1 – Why a lot of people like it in Hollywood: sunshine, palm trees and the Hollywood sign looming in the distance and legal medical marijuana. 

2 – An actual Hollywood walker – pushing (I imagine) a large proportion of his worldly goods in that rather stylish pram.

3- The Capitol Records building – one of Hollywood’s most famous “programmatic” pieces of architecture.  It looks like a stack of 7 inch vinyl singles, if anyone knows what that is anymore.

4 – A graffito painted on a wall under the Hollywood Freeway.  I walk past here all the time, graffiti appear regularly and within days city crews come and paint them over.

5 – Right in Hollywood, right by the freeway, the Vedanta Church, sometimes called the Vedanta Temple, the home of the Vedanta religion in Southern California – Aldous Huxley was a big fan.

6 – The coming together of concrete and greenery.  I always wonder how long it would take “nature” to reassert itself if mankind miraculously disappeared from the face of the earth.  Not long at all, I’m imagining.

7 – Pla-Boy Liquor – I love the name, I love the signs, and this is supposedly where Ed Wood bought booze in the later years of his life.  People who’ve live nearby also assure me it’s one of the more scary, crime-ridden corners in Hollywood.

8 – The question of when graffiti become murals, and when murals become street art is a vexed one, but I think most of us would call this one art, but on the other hand, we now know that every damn thing is art if somebody says it is.

9 – Mannequins in one of the many stores on Hollywood Boulevard designed to satisfy all your stripper needs.

10 – A movie theater in a geodesic dome, and an inflatable Spiderman on the roof.  Does it get more Hollywood than this?